Tactics in Focus: Barcelona 2-2 Milan

I wrote this piece for spanishfootball.info about Barcelona vs Milan. I hope you like it!!


Ajax 4-1 Vitesse: Tactical Review

Ajax's starting line-up against Vitesse
Vitesse's starting line-up against Ajax. A lopsided 4-3-3

Both sides made just one change from their previous matches. Vitesse boss John van den Brom brought in Jan-Arie van der Heijden for Julian Jenner, while De Boer chose Vurnon Anita at left-back ahead of Daley Blind. Both bosses set their teams up in their usual 4-3-3 formations, although they were very different as I will go on to explain later.

First Half

Ajax dominated possession right from the outset, in part down to Vitesse’s defensive tactics. The visitors defended very deep and when Hofs slotted into the midfield, they were effectively defending with two banks of four, and so Ajax failed to create many gilt-edged chances in the opening quarter of an hour. One player who caught the eye throughout the whole game was Derk Boerrigter, Ajax’s left-winger recently signed from second-division RKC Waalwijk and he tormented the Vitesse right-back Frank van der Struijk with some skillful dribbling. He created two chances in particular in the opening half-hour for Kolbeinn Sigthorsson, but the Icelandic striker headed over the first and missed the ball the second time. Boerrigter almost got himself on the scoresheet when he pounced onto a rebound, only to see his shot cannon off the post.

The departe of Maarten Stekelenburg was supposed to harmful to the dutch champions, but by the looks of it Kenneth Vermeer has more than enough ability to replace the new Roma goalkeeper.

There were several differences between the two side’s shape and here are a few:

  1. Nicky Hofs played far deeper on the left than Chanturia on the right, more as a midfielder than winger, and he tucked in when Ajax had the ball to create a four-man midfield.
  2. Chanturia played as a right-winger but was often found alongside Wilfried Bony in a two-man strike partnership with van Ginkel and van der Struijk covering the space on the right.
  3. The two strikers both wear the number 9 shirts for their sides, although only one of them played as a number 9 striker. This was Bony, who stayed high up the pitch and looked to latch onto long passes when they came, and as such often found himself isolated and with no chances to feed off. Sigthorsson certainly has the characteristics to play as a number ‘9’, but de Boer instructed him after the break to drop deep, find space and link with Christian Eriksen, the young Danish attacking midfielder. This was exactly how he got his second goal, receiving the ball between the lines, and firing an unstoppable low shot from 25 yards past Meerits.
  4. The front 3 of Ajax were very fluid, often interchanging positions, and they were rarely found doing any defensive work. In contrast, Vitesse’s front 3 were very rigid and the two wide midfielders/wingers were tasked to stop the opposition full-backs from advancing.
  5. The midfield triangles were also slightly different. Theo Janssen is not your typical midfield ‘destroyer.’ He has the ability to start attacks with his decent passing range, and his anticipation skills meant that he intercepted the ball on numerous occasions (he is more of a Xabi Alonso, without the exceptional long-range passing ability, than a Claude Makelele). Siem de Jong played slightly further ahead of him, and Eriksen slightly further ahead of de Jong. Just like Arsenal’s midfield 3, they rarely strayed too far from each other and were able to combine well, especially for the first goal, when de Jong layed the ball off to Eriksen who curled the ball beautifully into the top corner. Vitesse’s midfield three were ore disciplined and rigid.  Jan-Arie van der Heijden played in the defensive midfield role, with van Ginkel ahead of him to the right, Proepper to the left. Proepper and van Ginkel took it in turns to advance into the opposition territory, as they were clearly aware of the threat Ajax’s midfield 3 posed.

Second Half

Ajax really stepped it up after the break, and took their chances with ruthless efficiency. Their first came from Eriksen (as described above). The second goal came as a result of a brilliant long-ball from Belgian centre-back Toby Alderweireld over the top of the defence to Boerrigter, who played on the shoulder of the last man. He rifled the ball into the near post past a helpless Meerits. Sigthorsson got his first when he latched onto a low, deep cross from right-back Gregory van der Wiel and steered the ball expertly past Meerits. The fourth goal I mentioned above, a long-range strike from Sigthorsson.

By now, the game was as good as finished, so the consolation goal from Alexander Buttner really meant nothing at all, except that Ajax have yet to keep a clean sheet this season.


Frank de Boer’s men proved too strong on the night, and head to the top of the table as a result of their emphatic performance. The current champions will certainly prove hard to beat and look to have made a number of canny signings during the summer break, in particular Sigthorsson and Boerrigter. If Sigthorsson carries on his scoring streak, and de Boer improves the defensive organisation or concentration of the team, they will be odds-on favourites for the title this season.

Sporting CP’s performance against Nordsjaelland (second leg)

Sporting's starting line-up in their Europa League match against Nordsjaelland

With a new manager and a whole load of new players, it was always going to be a slow start to the season for Sporting CP. They began their Superliga campaign with two draws against lowly Beira-Mar and Olhanense, scoring one goal in the process, and also drew the first leg of their Europa League qualifier against Nordsjaelland from Denmark. This post will focus on their performance in the second leg of that qualifier.

Sporting made three changes from the first leg, with Rinaudo, Jeffren (injured) and Rodriguez being replaced by Capel, Carrico and Izmailov. This represented a slight change in philosophy from manager Domingos Paciencia, with 2 attackers and 1 defender in for 2 defensive players and 1 attacker.

First half

The diagram on the right-hand side shows roughly how they lined up to begin with, as Andre Santos sat as the deepest-lying midfielder, with Schaars playing as the number ‘6’ and Yannick playing as a second striker to Postiga with Capel and Izmailov supporting from the wings. The tactics seemed to be working in the first half as Sporting created chance after chance, with Nordsjaelland seemingly unable to get out of their own half. Captain Daniel Carrico missed the best chance of the half in his first start of the season after some great work by Postiga. Capel and Izmailov were tormenting the opposing full-backs, but Hansen in the opposition goal was standing firm. Andre Santos looked a very decent player in the holding role and has the added ability of being able to pick out a pass (unlike, say John Obi Mikel). There was an all too familiar problem, however, and that was that Sporting were dominating possession (like they have done in all their games so far) but some poor decision making and a lack of incisiveness in the final third really let them down. I saw less than half of the first half so I can’t really comment on it fully.

Second half

The second half began much as the first half had ended, with Sporting dominating in every area of the game. Paciencia had instructed Capel and Izmailov to keep swapping wings and to play as ‘inverted’ wingers. This seemed to have the desired effect as Capel cut inside on numerous occasions, either linking with Yannick or Postiga, or going for goal himself. He forced Hansen into tipping the ball over the bar after another good move. In fact, although they were supposed to be playing on opposite wings, Capel and Izmailov often found themselves near each other, and linked well on two occasions to put good crosses into the box. Yannick forced another good save from Hansen with a great header just before being substituted. Yannick is a player who received a lot of criticism last year while playing as a right-winger, mainly due to his lack of a final ball and some poor decision making. Much like Alexis Sanchez last year though, he seems to have found his position as a second striker, linking well with Helder Postiga on a few occasions. It remains to be seen whether he will continue in this role after the return of Matias Fernandez, or whether he will be moved out to the wing (unlikely) or to the bench (most likely).

Valeri Bojinov, who had replaced Yannick, made a big impact and missed a great headed chance moments after coming on. His all-round play as a striker means he will often be found on the wings or dropping into midfield, and it was he who provided Andre Santos with the assist for the first goal. Another Capel cross was not fully cleared and Bojinov gave Santos an opportunity he could not miss. It was Capel who set up Evaldo for the second goal with a great corner, and I’m not sure Evaldo knew too much about it before it bounced off his thigh and into the net.


Once again Sporting showed how strong they are in the midfield this season, dominating possession and creating countless chances (they had had 26 shots already with half an hour to go) for their attackers. Capel in particular looks like a bargain buy and it begs the question of why on earth Sevilla let him go. In the first half they failed to capitalise on these chances, but in the second they were more incisive and deserved their victory. They will be disappointed with the way in which they let in the goal in injury time as a result of a defensive mix-up.

Overall, it was a decent performance from the ‘Lions,’ going through to the group stages (the draw for which is taking place as I write) with relative ease. Once they are faced with higher quality opposition they really will need to take their chances when they come and I’m this is something Paciencia has been working on since the start of the season. Perhaps replacing Postiga with Ricky van Wolfswinkel or Diego Rubio would help solve the problem, although Paciencia has no doubt already considered this.

Chelsea 2-1 West Brom

First things first, I have to admit that I’m a Chelsea fan, so if this article comes across as biased in any way, I apologise.

Chelsea made two changes from their first match, with Hilario coming in for Cech and Anelka starting instead of Malouda. This meant that Kalou’s original position was as a left-winger, but as you can see in the diagram at the bottom of this article, he and Anelka constantly swapped wings. West Brom manager Roy Hodgson went with the same eleven that narrowly lost to Man Utd last week.

The first thing to note was the number of times West Brom targeted Jose Bosingwa with high balls. The Chalkboard below shows how many passes were directed towards Chelsea’s right-back area compared with their left-back area. Despite this, Bosingwa had a strong game, especially in the second-half, as the next chalkboard shows.

 by Guardian Chalkboards

 by Guardian Chalkboards

Another interesting tactical point was that Andre Villas-Boas clearly likes his goalkeepers to play it short (which can get you 1-2 more goals per season!) as the chalkboard shows, with Foster’s passes on top and Hilario’s below. For this to succeed, the full-backs went wide, the centre-backs parted and Mikel was often seen in between Alex and Terry, attempting to receive the ball short from Hilario and start attacks from deep.

The first-half saw Chelsea struggle in a number of areas and the crowd began to get frustrated. Anelka failed to produce the width required wide on the right, and Kalou was hardly more successful on the other wing. West Brom figured this out and attempted to shut down the full-backs Cole and Bosingwa. This was partly successful and resulted in Chelsea having only one shot on target in the first-half. Malouda’s introduction just after the half-hour introduced some width to the side, although if you look at the chalkboard below, he failed to find a team-mate with 18 crosses – this is precisely because Fernando Torres is not a target-man and prefers linking with advanced midfielders rather than relying on crosses like Drogba or Carroll. Another reason for West Brom’s strong defence was Gabriel Tamas. He succeeded with 5/5 tackles in the game, all in important areas.

 by Guardian Chalkboards

 by Guardian Chalkboards

 by Guardian Chalkboards

One of many positives to come out of the game for West Brom was their forward partnership of Shane Long and Somen Tchoyi. Long in particular made life very uncomfortable for Chelsea’s centre-backs and made a very high number of tackles for a forward.

 by Guardian Chalkboards

All in all, it was an uncomfortable afternoon for Chelsea and their manager Andre Villas-Boas, but they managed to come through the challenge in the end. It is hoped that the imminent arrival of Juan Mata from Valencia will provide Chelsea with width, pace, creativity and guile, all of which have been lacking in their opening two Premier League games, and that he will link to great effect with his fellow Spaniard Torres. West Brom can consider themselves very unfortunate to be stuck on 0 points after two good performances against Man Utd and Chelsea, and one thing is for sure, they will prove a tough challenge for any side in the league this season.

Notes on Real Madrid’s Supercup performance

Let’s just ignore all mention of the antics towards the end of the second leg of the Supercup between Real Madrid and Barcelona and instead just focus on the football. I’m going to focus on Real Madrid’s second leg performance (mainly because I only watched half of the first leg) and as you can see in the diagram, this is roughly how they lined up. Coentrao came in for Marcelo but that was the only change from the first leg.

Real started as they had done in the first leg, pressuring the Barcelona players intensely and defending from the front. This worked so well in the first leg, as Barcelona didn’t have their usual midfield three in that game, but was slightly less effective in the second leg. Eric Abidal was still harried on occasion and forced into long balls, but the presence of Busquets and Xavi made it easier for the Blaugrana to pass around Real.

One point that came out of the game was the deployment of Carvalho. The Portuguese defender often came out of defense in order to try and stop Messi and he was partly at fault for the first goal. Messi dropped deep, Carvalho came out (although not deep enough), and Messi played a through-ball to Iniesta into the gap which Carvalho had left. Employing an attacking centre-back (one who comes out of defense to follow the ‘false 9’) has often been suggested as a way to stop Messi, but never before has it been implemented, and I think it would need a distinctly different player to be successful in the position.

Real’s first goal came from a corner, and it was interesting to note that on three separate occasions, Karim Benzema was left completely free beyond the back post on these set-pieces. In this case, his shot was deflected in by Ronaldo, who seemed to be in an offside position.

In the second half, Marcelo came on for Sami Khedira, so Fabio Coentrao moved to the midfield (where he has played in most of his side’s pre-season games) and Marcelo played at left-back. The match became very scrappy and there were a lot of stoppages too. Pepe was very fortunate not to be sent off, although when Marcelo was given his marching orders after a scything challenge on debutant Fabregas, they were thoroughly deserved.

Real’s second goal came from another scrappy corner, and they may look to set-pieces to defeat Barcelona in the future. That man Messi though stopped the match from going into extra-time with a sublime volley after a one-two with Adriano and that was the end of that.

For future Clasicos, I suggest (although Mourinho probably won’t read this blog) that the Real Madrid coach employs the same tactics, but with different players starting. Nuri Sahin could replace Khedira and, while keeping all the same defensive qualities, add a little more offensively, and Carvalho could be dropped in favour of Albiol or Ramos (with Arbeloa playing at right-back). One thing’s for sure, though, Real have improved considerably since the 5-0 humiliation in November last year.

This is roughly how Madrid lined up

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